In Stokes Croft, once dubbed 'Bristol's forgotten half mile', a quiet but colourful revolution is taking place. A loose coalition, the People's Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), is using public art to transform an area that used to be emblematic of urban decline.
For Chris Chalkley, the one-man dynamo behind the scheme, art has the power to give the district a greater sense of community, and turn it into Bristol's 'cultural quarter'. 'It's possible that groups of people could come together to form an alternative vision for the area,' Chris enthuses, as he takes us on a whistle-stop tour of a few of the 'street galleries' that have sprung up across Stokes Croft.
Shop fronts, walls and even an electricity sub-station have been adorned with striking images by local artists. Almost anything can be turned into a feature of the area, Chris says. Even mundane objects like drainpipes and litter bins can impart a feeling of identity, safety and vibrancy when they have been decorated with eye-catching, unique designs.
The PSRC is funded and organised almost entirely by Chris himself. Having run a china shop for 25 years, he does not think of himself as either an activist or artist, and relies on local artists to donate their time. In April, around 20-30 volunteers painted the inside of a railway tunnel just outside Stokes Croft. In a single weekend, it became a canvas for myriad different designs. There is no doubting the potential of Bristol's artists, which is only beginning to be harnessed.
Dissatisfaction and blight
The PRSC has grown out of a need to change the face of the area, and dissatisfaction with the council's response to its problems. Connecting the shopping centre of the city with more affluent areas to the north, Stokes Croft is a mixture of residential buildings and shops that line the main road. While a number of its buildings are listed, about 30 are derelict, such as a three-storey carriage works from the area's Victorian heyday, which has stood empty since 1979. A further blight on the district's image in many people's eyes is the large number of homeless people, many of them suffering from drug problems, who congregate in what is known locally as the 'bear pit': a largely tarmac-covered, sunken roundabout at the end of Stokes Croft, connected to the surrounding streets by forbidding, grimy underpasses. The main road also boasts two less-than-subtle brothels.
Chris is adamant that image problems cannot be fixed simply by moving homeless people on or shutting down the massage parlours. You have to 'work with what you've got', he says. In their effort to discourage rough sleeping and graffiti by providing only single person seats and covering surfaces in anti-graffiti paint, the council has inadvertently made the area unwelcoming for everyone, says Chris. 'If the policy is to make public space inhospitable to the homeless, then it will become scary to the public.'
While the PRSC has no formal links with any political organisations, it explicitly challenges what it believes has been the council's approach to urban development. The focus, the group claims, has been exclusively on attracting private investment and big brands, exemplified by the ongoing £500-million Cabot Circus project to rejuvenate Bristol's retail heart just a few hundred metres away from Stokes Croft. Instead, the PRSC argues, the aim of regeneration should be to create welcoming public spaces and to promote creativity in the face of creeping corporate homogenisation, with public art a cheap way of doing so that can involve the local community.
'This is the front line of the battle against the encroachment of Cabot Circus,' Chris warns, 'so it needs to have a strong identity.' However, others think that the new shopping hub, currently festooned with cranes, might be beneficial. 'Cabot Circus has had a good impact,' says Lisa Blackwood, who works at the nearby Kuumba Arts and Community Centre. 'Stokes Croft is too close to Cabot Circus not to be developed.' Yet commercial enterprise is welcomed by the PRSC, so long as it fits with the area's independent and eclectic feel. 'If we change the perception of the area, then businesses will come,' Chris says. Indeed, cafes, grocers, bookshops and t-shirt printers have sprung up, attracted by relatively low rents.
Bristol council says that it is working with residents and groups such as the PRSC to improve Stokes Croft. In October 2007 it published a detailed 'character appraisal' of the area, assessing its aesthetic and social problems, and also acknowledging that the murals that now dot the area are part of its distinctive character.
They have recently undertaken a £1-million renovation of a hostel for homeless people, and a street-drinking ban in 2003 was largely successful in moving on drinkers from a central grassy patch known as 'Turbo Island' on the main road (though critics claim that this has done little more than displace them a few hundred metres down the street). But private investment is still central to renewing urban areas, the council argues: 'The improvements to the image of the area effected by the work of PRSC are one part of the process, but not sustainable on their own - there needs to be commercial investment to back it up.'
One of the council's biggest problems is getting private owners to preserve the historic character of their buildings and shop fronts. Some property holders simply hang on to derelict buildings, hoping that a lucrative development offer will come along. The council is currently battling to reclaim the towering Westmoreland House building from the developers Comer Homes, who have left it derelict for more than two decades. Seven people have died since the building was damaged by fire and abandoned in 1969.
As our tour of the Republic comes to an end, Chris is keen to stress that he doesn't think he has all the answers to Stokes Croft's problems. Most of the works done so far are temporary. 'The project is constantly evolving. A year ago I was thinking differently, and next year it will have changed again.'
There may be a risk that street art, while visually exciting, will turn the area into an artistic ghetto, and be exclusive of those who are not a part of the graffiti community. Or, if businesses and affluent residents are drawn in, the resulting rent hikes may push out the very artists who are attempting to accelerate urban renewal. The next step planned for the PRSC is to set up as a social business, where donations are exchanged for a say in the future of the project. Whatever direction the PRSC takes next, there can be no doubt that public art created and funded by local artists can be a cost effective way of putting colour and life back into the inner city.